Two Innovation Stories

1: Something to chew on

The ability to change direction is at the heart of innovation.  Innovators are rarely stuck in their ways, they are always willing to change and then change again.  The message for would-be innovators is clear: be flexible enough to change.  Today’s successful product range is tomorrow’s failure.  If you see an opportunity follow it.

Consider the story of Wrigley’s.

In 1891, William Wrigley moved from Philadelphia to Chicago, where the company’s headquarters are located today at the Wrigley Building at 410 North Michigan Avenue. He was twenty-nine years and had just $32 to his name. His pockets may have been empty but his head was full of dreams. A natural salesman, Wrigley dreamed of starting his own business.

In Chicago he set up a business selling soap to the wholesale trade. Ahead of his time, Wrigley understood the benefits of free promotions. To make his products more attractive to buyers he offered gifts including free baking powder. The baking powder proved more popular than the soap, so like any good entrepreneur, Wrigley moved out of the soap business and into baking powder.

And so it might have continued had it not have been for another of his free promotions. In 1892, he decided to offer two packs of chewing gum with each can of baking powder. It was an even bigger hit than the free baking powder had been. Once again, Wrigley switched businesses. Chewing gum, he felt, was where his future lay. This time he was right.

The first Wrigley chewing gums, Lotta Gum and Vassar, were launched that same year. They were followed in 1893, by Juicy Fruit and Wrigley’s Spearmint. The two flavors have been with us ever since.

By 1911, Wrigley’s Spearmint was America’s number 1 chewing gum and Wrigley was ready to spread his wings. He introduced PK chewing gum – which was sold in a tightly packed pellet form rather than loose in a box . The name, evidently, was inspired by the advertising slogan that accompanied it: “Packed Tight – Kept Right”.

The company became a public corporation in 1919. Its stock was first listed on the New York Stock Exchange and the Midwest Stock Exchange in 1923. In 1944, Wrigley’s entire production was turned over to the U.S. Armed Forces overseas and at sea (as was the production of Hershey chocolate). It may have lost some of its appeal today, but the slogan “Got any gum, chum?” was a big hit with military personnel at the time.

After the war, the invention of the teenager gave Wrigley’s another huge boost. When they weren’t puffing on a cigarette, Rock ‘n’ Roll rebels chewed gum. Its popularity was guaranteed by parents who despised the constant jaw motion of their surly off-spring, and branded chewing gum a disgusting habit. This simply made Wrigley’s product more popular than ever with high school kids.

As the century advanced, and American consumers became ever more hygiene conscious, so fresh breath became a serious issue. Once again, Wrigley’s rode to the rescue. Chewing gum had the additional benefit of hiding the smell of cigarettes and alcohol  – or so millions of teenagers and errant husbands believed.

The years were kind to Wrigley’s. It had the good fortune to be in business at a time when American culture was being exported all over the world. The process started by the archetypal gum-chewing GI in World War II, and immortalized by Hollywood.  The demand for all things American, meant that domestic chewing gums, like domestic cigarettes, were just no substitute for the genuine article. The mass marketing of American was and is a triumph of branding.

The irony is that many of those American branded products are no longer made there. Today, Wrigley’s produces its distinctively packaged chewing gum in factories around the world.  It is unlikely to go back to soap.

2:  Somewhere to sleep

We’ve all had bright ideas, but usually they lie dormant.  Following ideas through from creation to commercialization is no easy task.  Take the story of Kemmons Wilson.  His auto-biography is engagingly entitled Half Luck, Half Brains.

The moment of truth for Wilson was when he and his family left their home in Memphis to go on a motoring vacation. It wasn’t a huge success. It was not a great deal of fun staying in expensive or poor motels.  So, Kemmons Wilson decided to build his own: the first Holiday Inn was opened in Memphis in 1952.

In the Summer of 1951, the Wilson family of Memphis set off on a motoring vacation.  There was nothing special about it.  Just a couple and their five children heading to Washington DC.    Mr. Wilson, Kemmons Wilson was a Memphis builder and realtor.  He and his family became exasperated as their vacation progressed.  It was not a great deal of fun staying in expensive and poor quality motels.

“A motel room only cost about $8 a night, but the proprietors inevitably charged $2 extra for each child.  So the $89 charge soon ballooned into an $18 charge for my family,” Wilson later recounted.  “If we could get a room with two beds, our two daughters slept in one, and Dorothy and I slept in the other.  Our three boys slept on the floor in sleeping bags.  Sometimes there was a dollar deposit for the key and another dollar for the use of a television.”

So, Wilson decided to build his own — “I was seized by an idea: I could build a chain of affordable hotels, stretching from coast to coast. Families could travel cross-country and stay at one of my hotels every night”.  Wilson envisaged 400 such motels.  It sounded outrageously ambitious, but Wilson didn’t hang around.  He began work while still on vacation.  He measured rooms and looked at facilities.  His conclusion was that features such as televisions, telephones, ice machines and restaurants should be universal.  In his imagined hotel chain, children would be free.

When the family returned home, Wilson got straight to work.  He asked a draftsman to draw up some plans.  The draftsman had seen a Bing Crosby film the previous evening and labelled the plan, Holiday Inn, from the Crosby movie.  Wilson liked it.  The name stuck.

The first Holiday Inn was opened in Memphis in 1952.  (This fared better than Wilson’s first house which he mistakenly built on the wrong lot.)  The rest is motel history.  Clean and cheap, Holiday Inns spouted up throughout the United States and then the world.  “He changed the way American travels,” Senator John Glenn concluded of Wilson.  “Kemmons Wilson has transformed the motel from the old wayside fleabag into the most popular home away from home,” noted TIME.  By the time Wilson retired in 1979, Holiday Inn was the world’s largest lodging chain.

After coming up with the idea and having launched the first Holiday Inn at 4985 Summer Avenue, Kemmons Wilson attempted to franchise the idea.  Opening four Holiday Inns in just over a year in Memphis had stretched his finances to their limits.  Twelve franchisers were sold to housebuilders for $500 each.  Only three were eventually built.  Wilson thought again and sold 120,000 shares at $9.75.

This provided the impetus necessary to create a nationwide chain.  The 50th Holiday Inn was opened in 1958; the 100th in 1959; the 500th in 1964.

In 1979, Wilson gave control of Holiday Inns to his two sons. Holiday Inn went on to be controlled by a number of corporate names.  Away from Holiday Inn, Kemmons Wilson continued in his entrepreneurial way.  In his late sixties, he put his fortune on the line to build Orange Lack Country Club in Kissimmee, Florida.  It became the world’s largest timeshare resort with nearly 60,000 owners.  Kemmons Wilson companies — “Over 50 businesses ranging from pork rinds to candy” – meant that he had a busy retirement. The truly innovative, never stop.


Kemmons Wilson, Half Luck and Half Brains, Hambleton Hill, 1996

This was originally published in What we mean when we talk about innovation by Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove (Infinite Ideas, 2016).

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